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Advent 1995

The following is a sermon given at St. Francis Church in Stamford CT on the second Sunday in Advent, December 10, 1995. --E G. Happ

Prophets and Outcasts

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3::1-12

"Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand." "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." He "wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey."

Now here was someone who could make a dull dinner party interesting! Can you picture this? A wild-eyed visionary, passionate about ideals to excess, a strict vegetarian, dressed in leather pants and a camel-haired sport coat. Not bad.

Do you know someone like this? Perhaps there is some distant cousin on the family tree that we don't like to talk about, let alone invite to Christmas dinner. John would definitely qualify for a "black sheep" of the family if I ever saw one.

We have all crossed the paths of a such a character. He's part Christopher Lloyd, the mad professor from "Back to the Future." He's part homeless crazy waving a broken umbrella on Wall Street shouting about the injustices of the subway system, or a Reverend Billy Sol waving a worn Bible at the TV camera. And he's part uncle Albert, who had a bit too much cheer, telling a bad ethnic joke about the Pope's nose just as the turkey is being served at Thanksgiving dinner. This is a person who makes us feel just a bit uncomfortable, someone not like us, someone we'd probably avoid. Can you picture interviewing a John the Baptist to work in your accounts receivable department?

But what is John doing? He's preparing the way of the Lord, calling people to repent. Repent! Frederick Buechner defines repentance as a "coming to your senses," but also as something that "spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry," than to the future and saying 'Wow!'" It is an awakening and a call to the future, to what is coming. Repentance is less about guilt over the past, than about creating the openness to the "Yes" of God. "Prepare the way of the Lord!" shouts John. And we are astounded.

This must be some kind of divine joke. After all, the people who cared about the faith were looking to the scriptures, the Torah or sacred laws, and the learned priests who were its guardians. And here comes this malcontent, brandishing a broken umbrella, telling us the messiah is coming. Who would listen? Who would listen?

The thought that God would speak through an outcast is offensive to our sensibilities. Why would God choose a spokesperson who no self-respecting press secretary would ever put in front of the cameras? But this is how God seems to work, through the least expected avenues -- turning our expectations upside down. After all, Jesus was a carpenter from an unimportant town in the hills of the backwoods of the Appalachia of Israel. And John is calling us to our senses!

What we hear in John's message is a divine "No!" --what Karl Barth calls God's "Halt!" It stops us dead in our tracks and throws into question our beliefs, our sensibilities. Before we can hear the "Yes" of God is His divine "No!" It says we were looking in the wrong place. It is God saying "I have found you"; "I come to you 'like a thief in the night.'" Will you recognize me behind the disguise? So John is crying in the wilderness and washing away sins, the old clothes, like laundry forgotten on the banks of the Jordan.
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In the business world, we are always looking for new ways of viewing the future, of how to be more innovative and creative to insure future success. In fact, we are so interested in gaining insights in an increasingly competitive and global economy, we have driven business books to a new growth business. (If you've been to Borders Books recently, you know what I mean. The business section has exploded, and the shelves have been rearranged and expanded several times in the past two years.) One of the popular concepts to come out of this new thinking is the "paradigm shift." Have you heard of this? A paradigm shift is a change in viewpoint that suddenly brings new insights into the problem at hand.

... a change in viewpoint that suddenly brings new insights into the problem at hand.

For example, I remember reading in Readers Digest, sometime in junior high school, about a tractor trailer that had failed to see the low clearance warning sign and had wedged itself under an overpass. (If you travel to the Old Greenwich train station, you may have seen this first hand, at the railroad bridge on Sound Beach Avenue. It seems to happen there once a year.) So this truck is stuck under the overpass and the driver can't back out. The town's public works people are called in by the highway police, along with a local civil engineering firm. Pushing with a large tow truck fails. So they examine the bridge and the truck and consider the options of dismantling the trailer or removing a bridge girder. A young boy of nine who is watching all this with great interest from his bicycle, finally goes up to one of the engineers, tugs on his sleeve, and says, "Hey mister" "why don't you just let the air out of the tires!" And sure enough, it works. That's a paradigm shift: looking at the problem in a new way, from a new frame of reference. And we're left scratching our heads, saying "sun of a gun!"

If you gave John B. a shower and a shave, dressed him in pinstripes and wing-tips, he'd qualify as a paradigm shifter. Why? Because he is reminding us that God comes to us in new ways, through the back door, through people we least expect, through the outcasts who are out of the mainline. Will we hear that? Will we say with the civil engineer at the overpass, "wow", "sun of a gun?"
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M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, says that in the modern age, we may be losing our taste for mystery. He says that the "fully mature spiritual person is not so much a clinger to dogma as an explorer, every bit as much as any scientist, and that there is no such thing as complete faith. Reality, like God, is something we can only approach." "... is something we can only approach." hmm! He goes on to say that "when Jesus gave His big sermon, the first words out of His mouth were: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' There are a number of ways to translate 'poor in spirit,' but on an intellectual level, the best translation is 'confused,' Blessed are the confused." He continues, "If you ask why Jesus might have said that, then I must point out to you that confusion leads to a search for clarification, and with that search comes a great deal of learning." Confusion is an opportunity for learning; it is forward looking, and so has a bit of mystery and a bit of John's repentance.

We see this kind of openness to what is new in Paul's letter to the church at Rome. In his usual style, Paul is blowing away tradition and convention. "Welcome one another, therefore as Christ has welcomed you." "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." This business about welcoming Jew and Gentile alike in the early church was not easy stuff. The Gentiles, after all were the outcasts, the uncircumcised, the uncouth. But Paul reminds us that they were among the all for whom Christ came and died and rose again. In God's love there are no outcasts. So in the cry from the wilderness, in the coming of Christ, God turns our expectations upside down and makes us confused, bewildered, uncomfortable.

Perhaps we are not familiar with "Gentiles" as a good example of outcasts (because in the words of Pogo, "them is us." and though a little strange at times, we don't feel like outcasts at all.) But how about some other outcasts? In the last century, they were the slaves of the south; in the 20's it was women seeking the right to vote, in the 40's and 50's it was the Jews, wickedly oppressed and then in search of a homeland. In the 60's is was blacks in search of civil rights, and today it is gays asking to be full members of our communities. Who will be the next outcast crying to be heard? Or , in the words of Professor Peter Gomes, in his editorial in the NY Times, will homosexuality be the "last prejudice" in our society?

Now I am not at all versed in the political issues of gay rights and I don't understand all the arguments. I do know that I am usually uncomfortable with it, and confused about what is right and what is wrong. The events of the past few years, and the past few weeks at St. Francis' have turned things on its head for me. If, as Scott Peck says, confused is of God, then I am among the blessed.

But such issues are never resolved by political or philosophical reflection. They are hammered out through the one-to-one relationships, through the conversations that take place on both sides. This is first a person-to-person issue, not simply a matter of principle. So that the issue is not a "gay rights issue," but this person whom we have come to know. Like St. Anselm's great principle of fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, we first come to know, and then try to make sense of these personal encounters. It is no different when God snares us in the middle of a tragedy, and we try to then make sense of it.

Are John and Paul saying something to us here at St. Francis? Are they saying to us "look, listen" God may be coming to us in these events which we did not invite, through this person who we least expect?

I asked a long-term parishioner this week what she thought about Doug's sermon last week. She echoed what I heard from many, that it was wonderful. But she also said she was numb. I agree. We have been through an emotional wringer at St. Francis', and at times I wanted to shake my fist at heaven and say to God "Halt!" Enough already! So I hesitate speaking about this, and long for the peace and quiet of a North Stamford sanctuary. But there is no healing without confession, so speak we must.
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Like some of you, I had the privilege of sitting with Edward in his hospital room just a few weeks before he died. This was a very difficult thing for me to do. Happ's have a long tradition for avoiding doctors and hospitals; hospitals were where people go to be hooked up to tubes and monitors. Hospitals were where people go to die. And Edward was confirming all this for me. Before going for the first time, I can remember asking Tom Hitchcock about what to do, how to handle things that might come up in a hospital room with someone who was bed ridden. I hadn't a clue. Thank goodness Richard had the foresight to provide a sheet of instructions.

With the encouragement of others, and training of Tom and Richard, I was ready to go minister to this person in need, if only to sit with him and just be there. One night, after a brief nap, Edward asked for some juice, and then wanted to talk. He told me about when he first fell ill, and about a series of dreams he had. When he found out he had AIDS, he was angry at God, asking "why?, why me?, why this illness?" In a dream, he had the sense of God saying, "to learn and to educate." Edward then prayed, "to learn what?" Another dream, and a sense that the lesson was to "learn to face your fears and demons." So he told me about how he was doing that, about how he reconciled with his mother just days before, and about how much that had meant to him. Then he leaned forward and said, "You know, Father Gahler was here yesterday and said to Richard, 'Edward must feel that God has abandoned him, that he is all alone.' And I said, No. I have never felt closer to God; I feel as if he is at my shoulder."

I was stunned, frozen in place. God's Halt was a cold sweat on the back of the neck. Here was this man dying of an illness that scared the wits out of me, in a hospital room that gave me the creeps, ministering to me ... Ministering to me --telling me how this terminal disease had brought him closer to God. How humbling! I told him, "Edward, you are not the only one facing your fears and demons, through this, many others around you are as well." Blessed are the confused!

With Richard we are grieving the loss. We are grieving with him and for him. And when we are grieving, we are vulnerable, naked and exposed. We need to keep this in mind when we read our Stamford Advocate. With exposure comes confession, and with confession comes reconciliation. We need to remember that it is precisely when we are vulnerable that we become open to new possibilities. In His sermon, Jesus also said, "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Or to paraphrase: 'blessed are the vulnerable, for they see God's kingdom in the here and now.' In a moment of weakness, we are open to hearing a new voice, seeing a new reality. Our artists and our poets know this truth first hand. Only when we stop and listen, do we hear and see the nuances of our present experience. We know that like deer on the backroads at night, frozen in the headlights, we are stopped dead in our tracks by the possibility that God is coming disguised behind a darkened windshield.

On this second Sunday of Advent, I would like to leave all of us with this thought. Are we willing to hear God speak, even if his voice comes through the outcasts? Will we look to the future, the coming of Christmas, and the Christ child, and see the hand of God in the unexpected?

With the new babe's wail
will we hear the voice
of the one crying
in the wilderness
and know?


Ed Happ

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